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ICTU cancels day of action, returns to talks 
JM Thorn
27 March 2009


Trade union leaders have accepted an invitation from the Taoiseach to take part in talks on the economy and have cancelled the Day of Action scheduled for 30th March.  Speaking after the meeting at which the decision was made, ICTU general secretary David Begg said that he believed the Irish Government was sincere in it stated desire of resolving the outstanding difficulties between the social partners.  Begg said the Government’s indication that it was prepared to relax its previous stance on limiting borrowing to 9.5 per cent of GDP this year could be the “key to the solution” of achieving a new social partnership deal.  He hailed this a potentially significant movement that would enable unions “to get something more liveable with”.  At the same time he warned that the outcome of any agreement and the content of the emergency budget on 7th April was likely to be disappointed.

This represents a major capitulation by the trade union leadership.  The previous round of talks had broken down over the issue of the public sector pension levy.  The main motivating factor behind last month’s demonstration, which brought 120,000 people onto the streets of Dublin, was opposition to the pension levy.  The proposed Day of Action, which would have seen both strike action and protests, was again primarily about the pension levy.  Yet the trade unions have agreed to return to talks and suspended action without any movement on that key issue.  Indeed, the Government has reiterated that the pension levy will stay.  The only thing that trade unions can point to is the possibility that borrowing limits will be slightly relaxed this year.  At the most this will have some ameliorating affect for a very limited period of time.  It won’t maintain public spending even at its current leves.  This borrowing will have to be paid for at some point in the future, through increased taxation and spending cuts. 

The pressure on Ireland to reign in borrowing is also reinforced by its membership of the EU and adoption of the euro. The limit on borrowing for eurozone countries is less than half of the Irish Government’s current projections.  While these rules have been relaxed in the current period, for the EU and the euro to remain viable they must return with rigor in the near future.  When this does happen the affect on Ireland will be dramatic.  Even in period of recovery there be no relief.  The impact of the economic crisis on Irish workers will not be offset by a marginal increase in Government borrowing. 

Half hearted campaign 

The trade union leadership know this very well, but they are prepared to latch onto anything no matter how vacuous to get back into the structures of social partnership.  It is all they have known over the past twenty years and they cannot envisage trade unions being outside of it.  They have been incorporated into the institutions of the state and have benefited personally from Government patronage.  This process is personified by the likes of David Begg.  As general secretary of ICTU he is the notional leader of the Irish labour movement, but his role is closer to that of a state official than a trade union representative.  He has sat on the board of Aer Lingus that has overseen privatisation and major attacks on jobs and conditions. Even more pertinently, he was a member of the regulatory authority that presided over the recklessness and outright fraud that brought down the Irish financial sector. 

Trade union leaders like Begg do not see themselves as workers representatives but as partners alongside Government and employers managing the economy and society in accordance with some spurious national interest.  However, they are not the same as the Government and employers.  They are a layer within the working class and owe their position within social partnership to their ability to control the working class.  To exercise such control they have to reflect to some degree the anger and frustration of workers that can flare up periodically.  So in recent years we have seen the trade unions organise massive demonstrations over Irish Ferries, and most recently the pension levy.  To maintain their positions trade union leaders have to respond their members, but they do so in a way that doesn’t threaten social partnership.  Indeed, by demonstrating their ability to mobilise workers trade union leaders show their worth to Government and employers and the continuing value of social partnership.

The nature of protesting within social partnership is illustrated by the trade union opposition to the pension levy.  In the last round of talks ICTU had agreed to the proposed €2bn worth of budget cuts.  They only baulked at the proposal for ten per cent pension levy because of its manifest unfairness and the negative reaction from union members.  To endorse such a proposal at that point could have undermined their position.   They then went into the well-rehearsed Plan B of calling a major demonstration.  Once again this showed their ability to mobilise workers, but the message to the demonstrators was not one of outright opposition to the pension levy and other attacks on workers, rather it was of one sharing the pain – a theme supposedly encapsulated by ICTU’s ten point plan – “A Better Fairer Way”.  The opposition to the pension levy was therefore significantly dampened right away. 

The empty sabre rattling from the trade union leaders extend a little further than usual this time with a call for a Day of Action on the 30th March.  This was to consist of strike action and protests across both the private and public sector.  Yet the campaign to build for this was half hearted at best.  This was reflected in the wording used on the various strike ballots.  Ostensibly the strikes were to be about the specifics of the pension levy and national pay agreement, but many of ballots made no mention of these.  They instead called for an endorsement of ICTU’s ten-point plan  - “A Better Fairer Way”.  Its main thrust, as stated earlier, is the sharing of the pain of the economic crisis.  We therefore had the perverse situation in which workers were being asked to endorse the measures that they had come out to protest in their tens of thousands just a few weeks earlier. 

Such manoeuvres demonstrate the utter duplicity of the trade union leadership.  They really never had any intention of going ahead with the Day of Action.  It was nothing more than a gesture to assuage the anger of members.  For the trade union leaders strike action, which carries the potential for escalation, had to be avoided at all costs.  The fact is that they never stopped talking to the Government despite the formal breakdown of the partnership process.  The means by which the Day of Action was cancelled, the invitation to talks and hint of a relaxation in borrowing limits hyped as a breakthrough by trade union leaders, was carefully choreographed between the two parties.

The lack of commitment of the trade unions leaders became even more obvious after its cancellation.    Peter McLoone of Impact said that the resumption of talks had been “what the congress has been seeking all along”.   Into general secretary John Carr said the key objective of calling the work stoppage was to get the government to re-engage with the trade unions on a social partnership basis.  It had sought a mandate for industrial action not as a means of opposing the pension levy but as "leverage to secure a re-engagement with Government".  TUI General Secretary Peter MacMenamin welcomed the decision of the Government to “re-engage with the other social partners” and reiterated his union’s support for a “fairer distribution of the effects of the economic difficulties in accordance with the Ictu's ten-point plan."  In all this workers were used as the bargaining chips to secure trade union leaders a place around the table with the Government and employers. 

New talks 

It is also clear that the only purpose of those new negotiations will be how to impose the upcoming emergency budget in April that will involve massive and sustained attacks on working people.  ICTU have already agreed to this in principal - this was the thrust of the framework document agreed between the social partners in January.  Indeed, in his letter to the ICTU inviting it to take part in talks, Brain Cowen said that the core elements of a new integrated national response to the economic and other related crises had been outlined in that document, and that the new round of talks would “build on the framework  . . . to see if it's possible to proceed with agreement on a range of issues."  However, the economic situation has deteriorated significantly since the start of the year and the sacrifices demanded are much greater.  In January the trade unions signed up to cuts of €2 billion – the target for reduction in spending in next month’s budget could now be up to €6 billion.  In these circumstances there is unlikely to be any amendment to the pensions levy or even a gesture towards the very mild proposals of “A Better Fairer Way”.   The proposal’s coming out of new negotiations are likely to be much worse than those baulked at by ICTU in January.   Ibec has already signalled to trade unions any new agreement would have to involve a lengthy pay freeze. 



Though the cancellation of the Day of Action will have demoralised many workers for a minority it will have served to clarify the true nature of the trade union leadership.   They will be seen for what they are - as an obstacle to the development of a working class movement rather than an aid.   There is already evidence that some workers are drawing this conclusion.  For, example the Dublin City Post Primary branch of the TUI has called for Mr Begg's resignation and passed a motion of no confidence in the Ictu executive council.  The Tralee IT branch of the TUI has proposed a motion for the TUI congress to join with other trade unions to take strike action.  Another encouraging development is the overwhelming rejection by bus workers of the Labour Court proposals (backed by union officials) to slash jobs and services.  While these developments are small they do point towards the urgent task of challenging the current leadership of the Irish labour movement and restoring trade unions as independent and democratic organisations of the working class.  This is an essential precondition for building a movement that can advance the cause of Irish workers. 


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